Friday, July 6, 2012

The Sheepeater Indians of Yellowstone

By: Peggy L Henderson

I’ve just returned from an annual trip to Yellowstone National Park. The second night at the campground we stayed at, my husband pointed out that the evening campfire ranger program that evening might be something I would be interested in. The ranger’s talk was about the Sheepeater Indians. I thought, wow! I needed that a year ago when I was doing research on this tribe for my current book series. Finding information on this tribe hasn’t been easy, and now that the series is complete, I was very eager to see if I “got it right.” I came away from the program fairly satisfied that I hadn’t really learned anything new about this hardy sub-tribe of Shoshone Indians that time and history seems to have forgotten. The only interesting fact I did learn was that the last small group of Sheepeaters was removed from Yellowstone in 1890, their way of life and customs untouched or influenced by white men.

Bighorn Ram
The Sheepeater Indians, or Tukudika, which in their language means “eaters of meat”, a sub-group of the Shoshone, were the only native peoples to live in the Yellowstone region year round. Their primary source of food was the bighorn sheep that inhabited the high mountains of the park. They also lived on fish, nuts, berries, the root of the camas flower, bitterroot, and various other edible plants. Marmots (called whistle dogs) were considered a delicacy.

Often called Mountain Shoshone, they may have lived in the Yellowstone area for 10,000 years, although another version of their ancient history has them arriving less than 1,000 years ago. They were considered by other bands of Shoshone Indians as great medicine men, and highly spiritual, because they chose to live in mountainous areas often at 7500 feet or higher. These were areas the Shoshone believed were home to a higher order of spirits called Sky People.
The Sheep Eaters, though, gained an undeserved reputation, through written accounts by Lewis and Clark, and other explorers, as having been destitute, feeble-minded, and almost subhuman. Not all white men shared this view, and mountain man Osborne Russell wrote in his book, Journal of a Trapper, about their friendly nature and the fine quality of their hides.
Due to the remote and harsh areas where they lived, the Sheepeaters were not influenced by the arrival of whites. They didn’t have rifles, and no horses. They continued to travel on foot in the traditional way, utilizing dogs to help carry their supplies and in their hunts for bighorn sheep. They kept to the high remote areas, escaping the European influence more than other tribes. They remained deeply immersed in their landscape and ways, and no doubt the beauty and unspoiled wilderness of Yellowstone inspired their beliefs, worldview and spirituality.
flattened sheep horn, sinew, glue to make a hornbow
The Sheep Eater culture distinguishes itself from other tribes in various ways. They lived in small family groups in huts made from skins and branches (aspen and willow in summer, heavier materials in winter), called wickiups. Their hide tanning methods were of high quality and trade value. Their bows earned a near mythical reputation. They were made from the horns of Bighorn Sheep or elk antlers, which they heated at Yellowstone’s geysers and hot pools and then molded into hunting weapons. It was said that the force of their bows could drive an obsidian-tipped arrow clear through a buffalo.
remnants of a Sheepeater Wickiup
“Like many other hunters and gatherers, the Sheep Eaters did not make a distinction between the natural and supernatural worlds. At the apex were the “Sky People,” below them were the “Ground People,” and still lower were the “Water People.” Physical phenomena were also hierarchically ordered, with the sun and lightning at the pinnacle and rattlesnakes occupying the bottom rung of the cosmos.” (from Mountain Spirit – The Sheepeater Indians of Yellowstone)
In the 1870’s, superintendent of Yellowstone, Philleus Norris, decided to eradicate all Indians from the park. The Sheepeaters were driven from their homelands, and taken to reservations at Wind River in Wyoming, and Fort Hall in Idaho. Several small groups did escape this eradication, however, and the last group still survived in the remote mountains of Yellowstone, living as their ancestors had for thousands of years, until 1890.
When I chose to include the Sheepeaters into my writing of my books in the Yellowstone Romance Series, I decided to use their spiritual beliefs as my vessel for the time travel elements in several of the books. The Sky People (although the Sheepeaters referred to the animals in the sky as “the sky people”, in my books I implied for them to be actual spiritual men) became the perfect source of the origin of the time travel device for the books.
Here is a short excerpt from Yellowstone Heart Song, Book 1 in the Yellowstone Romance Series:
Daniel nodded. He knew his mother had died in childbirth in the midst of a winter blizzard here in the mountains. His father had been unable to go for help from the nearby Tukudeka clan. How often had he heard his father blame himself over the years for his wife’s death, for taking her away from the safety of New Orleans and bringing her to the mountains?
“What I didn’t tell you before,” his father cleared his throat again, each word seemed to cause him pain to bring forth, “is that we had a visitor that night.”
“A visitor?” Daniel echoed.
“He was old. A Tukudeka elder. He got caught in the snowstorm and found the cabin. He was nearly frozen to death when he managed to pound on the cabin door.”
“Continue,” he said slowly, when his father paused again.
“I tended to both your mother and the old man throughout the night. She was getting worse, and he was starting to thaw out. That’s when he offered me the chance to save your life.”
“My life?” Daniel’s eyes narrowed.
“He handed me this.” His father reached into the pouch around his neck and produced a shriveled up, dried snakehead with eerily unnatural gleaming red eyes. Daniel stared at the object, then back at his father.
 “He told me a story of how his grandfather received this snake from some ancient people who came from the sky.”
“The Tukudeka legends are full of stories of the Sky People,” he nodded.


Ginger Simpson said...

Glad you had a wonderful time, welcome home, and thank you for the photos and interesting post. I'm a visual person so I really like seeing pictures.

Tabitha Shay said...

Very interesting...I love Yellowstone, glad to learn of this tribe...Good luck with your series...Tabs

Kirsten Arnold said...

Great post about the Mountain Shoshone, Peggy, very informative! Glad you enjoyed your Yellowstone vacation, and that you could walk away from the talk knowing you got it right. :o)

Shirl said...

Great post! I love to read about the cultures of the past. The Indian cultures were so interesting. We could learn alot from them.
The writing about their way of life in your books, just makes them that more interesting.....Shirl

Peggy Henderson said...

Thanks, ladies!
I always thought I would publish a prequel to my series, explaining the "sky people" and the time travel element in the books. Since listening to the ranger talk, however, I changed my mind. He mentioned about being respectful to their spiritual beliefs, and while I stayed fairly true to all of that in the books, I did make up a myth about the sky people, and I'm not sure that would be in line with being respectful to their spirituality.

Lyn Horner said...

Love your post, Peggy! I've certainly learned a lot from your Yellowstone writings. Glad to know you got it right.

Meg said...

Great post, Peggy - isn't it great to know your research was sound? So glad you enjoyed Yellowstone and the pics are lovely!

Ellen O'Connell said...

Very nice, Peggy. That's a subgroup I'd never heard of, and I suppose they don't exist any more as distinct from other Shoshone. However, I'd have to say from what I've read, all natives were considered subhuman by the general population of the time. As for Lewis and Clark, Clark took his slave with him on the expedition - he had to be used to looking at some people as less by birth.

Devon Matthews said...

Welcome back, Peggy! Glad you enjoyed your vacation. Great post!

Paty Jager said...

Peggy, This is a group of Indians I had heard of but knew nothing about. Great information.

LeAnn Atkin said...

Dear Ms. Henderson,
I would like to thank you tremendously for this article. My great grandfather, Arthur Earl Jones, and his brothers came across what they called "The Little People" in the early 1900's while herding cattle in Wind River Canyon. From that day as a child I have wondered about them, and just lately in my research in Family History, I have become even more fascinated. I have several Native American friends, as well as relatives, whom are very closed mouth on this subject. However one friend did talk to me, her husband is Shoshone, she told me there is a documentary from PBS on the "Sheepeaters". I have yet to find it to watch, but am still looking. The Shoshones are very reluctant to talk about them, in fact, there are areas of the Wind River Reservation that they refuse to go to because the spirits of this tribe reside there. According to what I have heard, the tribe was very fierce, supposedly due to their size. After being given the assignment by the LDS Church to administer the FB page, "Wyoming Genealogy Research" I have become even more fascinated by them, as I have had several queries about them. I try to help answer their questions as best as I can. This has enlightened me greatly.
I live in Lander, Wy, which as you know is only 15 miles from the reservation and have several people in our Church asking questions. As I mentioned, I greatly appreciate the information and hopefully you will find more information on them, which you will share on this blog. I have book-marked this blog and will mention it on my FB page.
Warm Regards,
LeAnn Knifer Atkin